Michael Williams: Routemasters are just the ticket for hard times

Early in Ken Livingstone's reign as Mayor of London he famously said: "No one but a moron would get rid of the Routemaster." Eventually he had to eat his words as Douglas Scott's icon of the capital creaked to its 50th anniversary and the end of the road. Livingstone saved himself from entire humiliation by retaining two Routemaster tourist routes – No 9 and No 15 – which still ply their way between Harrods and the Tower of London.

But it wasn't just fogeydom and political opportunism that inspired Livingstone's successor Boris Johnson to pledge to recreate the Routemaster for modern times. He rightly sensed the loss that Londoners felt for something which was as emblematic of the capital as Sherlock Holmes, pearly queens and jellied eels.

Now we have the winners of Johnson's design competition for the new Routemaster. Both the Aston Martin-Lord Foster and the Capoco designs are handsome and practical vehicles, and a poke in the eye for those who said they would never get to the drawing board.

But Johnson's new Routemasters symbolise very little that was revolutionary about the old ones. It is hard to imagine now how exciting the first RMs were as they emerged from the austerity of the post-war era. Sleek and fast because of their light aluminium bodies and a gearbox similar to a Ferrari, they embodied everything that was modern. As a boy, I travelled with my father on the very first service in 1956 – the No 2from Golders Green to Crystal Palace. To a small boy's eye it was futuristic beyond belief.

By contrast, the designs that have won Johnson's competition are safe, conservative and unchallenging, despite their air-smoothed looks.

But just like the first RMs of the post-war era, these may just be the buses for the times. As the chill winds of recession blow especially hard on the capital, something warm, cuddly and lovable may be just what Londoners need.